"The Latinos say they feel steamrolled and under threat!"

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  1. Bullfighter

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    Brooklyn Immigrant Congregations Clash

    The United Methodist church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is anything but united.

    Two pastors preach from the same pulpit and live in the same parsonage next door, but they are barely on speaking terms and openly criticize each other’s approach to the faith.

    In the church’s social hall, two camps eye each other suspiciously as one finishes its meal of rice and beans while the other prepares steaming pans of chicken lo mein.

    Two very different congregations share the soaring brick building on Fourth Avenue: a small cadre of about 30 Spanish-speaking people who have worshiped there for decades and a fledgling throng of more than 1,000 Chinese immigrants that expands week by week — the fastest-growing Methodist congregation in New York City.

    The Latinos say they feel steamrolled and under threat, while their tenants, the Chinese, say they feel stifled and unappreciated. Mediators have been sent in, to little effect. This holiday season, there are even two competing Christmas trees.

    “This pastor is very rude to us,” said the Rev. Zhaodeng Peng, who heads the Chinese congregation with his wife.

    The Rev. Hector Laporta, leader of the Latino church, responded, “He really has an anger problem.”

    The standoff mirrors a tug of war that has played out for generations in New York, where immigrant groups — some established, some newly arrived — jostle on crowded sidewalks and in narrow tenements for space, housing and jobs.

    Now, that struggle is reaching even into the hushed sanctuaries of churches, as financially pinched congregations — especially those in mainline denominations like the Methodists — increasingly make ends meet by moving in together. In Jamaica, Queens, a Methodist church split between Latin American and Caribbean congregations has just made room for a small Pakistani one.

    Like roommates everywhere, the cohabitating Methodist groups clash over dirty bathrooms, loud music and lights left on, said the Rev. Kenny Yi, the denomination’s district coordinator, who has tried to mediate the dispute in Sunset Park.

    “Even within the church, there’s always ego,” Mr. Yi said. “It’s still human society.”

    The church, at 4614 Fourth Avenue, built more than a century ago by Norwegian immigrants, offers plenty of opportunities for tension. There is a language barrier: few of the Chinese speak English, and even fewer speak Spanish. The space is cramped and in need of repair, and each group pursues a different mission.

    Mr. Laporta, 55, hails from a church tradition of social action. He attends rallies for rent control and calls for immigration reform in his sermons. He says Mr. Peng ignores the plight of the illegal immigrants in his congregation.

    Mr. Peng, 48, focuses more tightly on Scripture. “The people need the Word,” he said. He contends that Mr. Laporta has left his members spiritually hungry. “If the congregation needs to learn the policy, they can read the newspaper,” Mr. Peng said. “That’s why their congregation doesn’t grow.”

    In the middle are Mr. Yi and other senior Methodist officials, who have to decide whether to maintain the uneasy status quo or move the Latino congregation to a different site and give the building to Mr. Peng and his wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Qibi She.

    “We are trying to rely on God to see which direction the Lord is leading the two congregations,” Mr. Yi said. “We will find out sooner or later.”
    Methodist officials, in the meantime, have been quietly trying to referee. Last year, Mr. Yi brought in an outside mediator, Kenneth J. Guest, an anthropology professor at Baruch College who has studied religion in New York’s Chinatown.

    Dr. Guest helped broker a covenant that spelled out ground rules: The Latino church would have exclusive use of the social hall on Sundays from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The Chinese congregation would get it from 2 until 7 p.m. Neither group would interrupt the other’s sermons.

    It has not worked. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Laporta pulled out the contract and pointed to each compromise he said the Chinese group had broken. There were many.

    “They don’t follow any of the rules,” he said, his voice filled with resignation.

    Mr. Peng said the church attracted so many Chinese newcomers that many people were not aware of the rules.

    The neighborhood outside, one of the city’s most vibrant immigrant enclaves, in some ways reflects the church’s divide. Fifth Avenue is home to taco stands, Ecuadorean bodegas and Mexican churches, while up the hill, along Eighth Avenue, Chinese fish markets and ginseng medicine shops form Brooklyn’s Chinatown.

    In recent years, Chinese businesses have crept down the hill toward Fourth Avenue, where the church sits. The Chinese population in the area grew to more than 31,000 by 2009, from roughly 24,000 in 2000, according to census data.

    “It’s overwhelming; they’re everywhere,” said Mr. Laporta, a native of Peru. “What’s happening in here is the same thing that’s happening out there.”

    The Latino congregation, Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church, has been in the building for about 30 years, but has dwindled from more than 60 members to fewer than half that. About six years ago, the congregation began renting to the Chinese group, Tian Fu United Methodist Church.

    The Chinese church pays Mr. Laporta about $50,000 a year in rent, more than twice what the Hispanic congregation has been able to raise on its own. Mr. Peng said he would happily pay more, and help fix up the threadbare church, if he were allowed to expand into the basement.
    “They have a huge building, but few people,” Mr. Peng said. “We have the people but no building.”

    Chinese parishioners receive certificates of appreciation for every 12 new members they recruit. Most are immigrants from Fujian Province, under age 35 and living alone. On Sunday afternoons, after the Hispanic parishioners clear out, the social hall has the buzz of a lively mixer.
    The Chinese parishioners work up to six days a week, often in restaurant kitchens. Many came to the church in search of community, and only afterward found Christianity, said an active member, Roy Ouyang. “It’s like a family,” said Mr. Ouyang, 26, a wedding photographer who arrived in this country five years ago. “I make new friends here. Maybe I can find a girlfriend, too.”

    On a recent Sunday, the Chinese men designated as greeters outnumbered the entire Hispanic congregation.

    “It’s not our church anymore; that’s the way we feel,” said Oswaldo Nieves, 70, a Puerto Rican who has attended the Latino church for eight years. “They are eliminating us slowly, slowly.”

    His congregation is a mix of mostly elderly Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans who come together to sing during Sunday services and chat about their children and their health. Over the years, members have left the neighborhood, while new immigrants — many from conservative rural parts of Mexico — flock to nearby Roman Catholic and Pentecostal churches.

    Even the Chinese parishioners know Sunset Park well enough to be aware that their congregation may not last. On a recent morning, Ms. She, the co-pastor, told what little she knew about the Norwegians who had founded the church. She laughed.

    “Maybe in another 100 years, another people will be here,” she said, “and the Chinese will go out.”



    Now, now! What would Jesus do?

    He would kick the theiven Mexicans out and welcome the Chinese.

    How does it feel to be steamrolled, Mexico?

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